The Rockets are 2-2 after four games and it's clear that this season will be more enjoyable than the last. Now that's not a very high bar, but I digress, progress is progress.
We thought the defense would be bad and it mostly has been. But we're here to talk about James Harden, so let's talk (mostly) about the offensive end. Harden is, to put it bluntly, lighting the damn world on fire through four games as the Rockets' point guard. Let's look at a few numbers to properly frame the start he's had:
*Programming note - this is the first and last time in this article I'll say "but it's only been four games, so it's a small sample size and things could change" or something to that effect. It's obvious, tiresome and played out. I give Hashtag Basketball readers enough credit to know that nothing is set in stone after the first week of an NBA season.
- 32.3 ppg
- 11.8 apg (leads the NBA)
- 7.3 rpg
- 41.7 points per 100 possessions
- 48.8% FG, 38.2% from three on eight attempts per game
- 115.8 OffRtg
- 20%FG in the clutch
- 5 turnovers per game
- 37.3 minutes per game
- 35.8% Usage rate, a career-high by three percentage points. Is it sustainable?
- 4 fouls per game, higher than ever in his career by a healthy margin. Is it a sign of more defensive effort, or just more minutes guarding point guards?
- 9.3 miles run per game (5th in NBA). Again, how sustainable is this for a 27-year old player?
The Beard is putting up offensive numbers like we've rarely seen before. He's always been a more willing passer than folks give him credit for and under D'Antoni he's letting the world know. He seems more engaged defensively and has started to step into a leadership role, both essential to this team's success.
Game 1 - Lakers 120, Rockets 114
The "new Harden" wasted no time introducing himself to a national TV audience. He tallied nine assists in the FIRST QUARTER of the first game on his way to 17 for the night. The dimes came in a dizzying array of pick-and-roll no-looks, nifty dishes in traffic, long transition outlets and alley-oops to Clint Capela.
Some of the old Harden remained, however, as unforced turnovers again reared their ugly head. He had a dismal seven turnovers, much to the delight of a fan with expensive seats at Staples Center:
His penchant for 'Shaqtin' a Fool' moments also didn't disappear over the summer:
But the good far outweighed the bad for Harden, as he scored 34 points and was two rebounds shy of a triple-double. Though just 1-7 from three, Harden showed he can still go wherever he wants on the court and is among the league's best at drawing fouls on drives. Harden hit 15-16 free throws, living at the line all night. A potential concern moving forward, outside of the turnovers, are the big minutes. His 37 minutes are more taxing than just about anyone elses, since he carries such an offensive scoring and distributing burden. He seemed to fade a bit in the fourth quarter as the Lakers pulled away.
All in all a fantastic debut for Harden, but his team took an L.
Game 2 - Rockets 106, Mavericks 98
Four more turnovers for Harden, but also four made three-pointers in the Rockets' first win of the season. He had another eight assists to go with 26 points, but none prettier than this full court touchdown pass to Trevor Ariza:
The Rockets led by double figures in the fourth quarter against an already injury-plagued Mavericks team. Opponent hobbled or not, it's nice to get a road win against a rival. Harden led the way from an all-around perspective, while a rejuvenated Ariza led the team in scoring with 27 points. With Harden running the show and creating looks for Ariza, Eric Gordon (18 points) and others, we got our first glimpse at the potential of this team.
Game 3 - Rockets 93, Mavericks 92
If only the Rockets could play the Mavs every night, amirite? This time in Houston, we had ourselves a nailbiter. After a clutch Wes Matthews three tied it with under five seconds left, Harden drew a foul at the rim on the other end with 0.01 left. After missing the first free throw - you know, just to create some extra drama - Harden drained the second for the win.
He finished with 28 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in another dominant performance. D'Antoni kept him on the floor for 38 minutes out of sheer necessity. Early on in the season, after a summer of working on his conditioning, this is no big deal. But if we get to January with the same type of minutes load every night, even the Beard may start to falter. In Houston, he's always played big minutes at a high usage. It's something he prides himself on. But it's something to monitor, especially since the Rockets' woeful defense ensures that most games will be decided late.
Game 4 - Cavaliers 128, Rockets 120
A huge night from Harden - 41 points, 15 dimes, 7 rebounds - wasn't enough to topple the reigning NBA champs on their home floor. The Cavs offense is just too buttoned up for Houston's undisciplined defense to slow down. Gordon drew the Kyrie Irving assignment much of the night, giving Harden much-needed rest on that end. But Gordon did little to slow down Irving. Watch on this play as Harden stifles an entry pass to a cutting J.R. Smith, only to have Gordon fall asleep allowing Kyrie to get the ball back. The Rockets then stand idly by as Kyrie takes it all the way to the rack for a dunk:
Harden was an efficient 13-20 from the floor including 5-9 from three. But against the best competition one man usually can't win a game. It will be interesting to see how Harden deals with losses like these throughout the year, when he puts up a monster effort in a loss.
But, despite this loss and the opening night defeat at the hands of the Lakers, it's clear that D'Antoni and Harden are making this Rockets squad fun again. Early returns show they should be able to keep up with the majority of the Western Conference and anything short of a playoff berth would qualify as a massive disappointment.
The Beard is not your typical point guard, but he may wind up challenging guys named Westbrook, Lillard and Curry as the most productive one this season.